The GOP is desperately trying to convince people that the New Deal “failed,” saying “many” historians and economists agree—though they don’t name any, whereas the number who say the New Deal was a success are legion and include Nobel laureates. Adam Cohen in the NY Times writes:
On Christmas Eve, the conservative pundit Monica Crowley argued on Fox News that instead of rescuing America from the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s spending on public works made it worse. She insisted that this bizarre claim was confirmed by “all kinds of studies and academic work.”
The show’s host backed her up. “Yes,” said Gregg Jarrett, “I think historians pretty much agree on that.” In the same vein, a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece said F.D.R. helped turn “a panic into the worst depression of modern times.” Now, as Congress begins to debate President-elect Barack Obama’s ambitious economic stimulus plan, this anti-New Deal talking point is popping up all over.
Conservatives have railed against the New Deal from the start. In 1934, H. L. Mencken was already decrying it as “a saturnalia of expropriation and waste.” When F.D.R. ran for re-election in 1936, a headline in William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers insisted that “Moscow Backs Roosevelt.”
But Americans were not fooled. They knew F.D.R. was on their side in a way that Herbert Hoover and his fellow free-marketers hadn’t been. They could see first-hand the good that Roosevelt’s jobs programs were doing for the Depression’s victims and the slow but unmistakable improvements in the economy.
In the 1934 midterm elections, the voters delivered their first verdict on the New Deal, expanding the Democrats’ margins in Congress. In 1936, F.D.R. won in a bigger landslide than he had four years earlier. By 1940, the Republican nominee, Wendell Willkie, was supporting much of Roosevelt’s social welfare and regulatory regime.
Anti-New Deal rhetoric has never disappeared from American political life. When Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964, he attacked President Dwight Eisenhower for having presided over a “dime store New Deal.” But in recent years, the attacks have heated up.
At the start of the Bush administration, conservatives talked openly about rolling back the New Deal. They were trying to unravel the regulatory state, including protections for workers, consumers and investors. They were also promoting a favorite cause of Wall Street’s: privatizing Social Security, the crown jewel of the New Deal.
These days the public is in no mood, given the high costs of deregulation in the mortgage industry and the Bernard Madoff scandal, for more talk about dismantling regulations and federal oversight. But today, the new focus is Mr. Obama’s stimulus package. If F.D.R.’s New Deal spending made things worse, it follows that the Obama administration should not make the same mistake.
The anti-New Deal line is wrong as a matter of economics. F.D.R.’s spending programs did help the economy and created millions of new jobs. The problem, we now know, is not that F.D.R. spent too much priming the pump, but rather that he spent too little. It was his decision to cut back on spending on New Deal programs that brought about a nasty recession in 1937-38.
The second problem is that the criticism overlooks the …